If you’re facing the end of a marriage, you’re certainly not alone. Around 45% of marriages end in divorce, and an average of 100 divorces are filed per hour in the United States. But the prevalence of divorce does not make the process any less frightening and stressful for spouses who are initiating divorce proceedings. Depending on your situation, divorce can be complex, both emotionally and legally. An experienced divorce attorney can help you navigate these complexities with more confidence and less stress, especially if you’re expecting to deal with issues such as child support, custody agreements, or division of marital property. Even if you are anticipating an amicable collaborative divorce, an attorney can help draft and explain legal documents, and ensure that your rights are protected. These key steps to hiring a divorce attorney can help you assess your divorce priorities, prepare you for the initial interview and consultation process, and guide your decisions during the divorce proceedings, should you encounter conflict or challenges with your legal representation:
- Get yourself prepared for the divorce process.
- Determine what issues are most important to you in your divorce.
- Understand what the attorney’s role is in your divorce.
- Ask these 10 questions in your initial consultation with a lawyer.
- Understand the attorney’s fees and costs, and how you will pay.
- Don’t be tempted to go with the most aggressive lawyer, even if you think your spouse will.
- Considering mediation? Ask an attorney for advice.
- Don’t stick with a bad attorney just because your case is pending—change lawyers if you have too.
Here’s how to navigate each step of the way.
Get yourself prepared for the divorce process.
At minimum, you want to gather all the documentation that might be needed to file for divorce. That can include documentation of assets and debts as well as income statements and tax returns.
If you’re safe and able to plan ahead for your divorce, especially if you and your spouse agree about the end of the marriage, you might take time to plan financially. That can mean saving money or paying off debts so that you enter divorce with a less complex personal financial situation to consider.
In some cases, you may be required by state law to be separated for some time prior to filing for divorce. Even if this isn’t the case, you might want to separate as a way to prepare for divorce. Separation lets you work out issues such as custody and support so you know what might be best to ask for in the divorce.
Determine what issues are most important to you in your divorce.
Whether you plan ahead for a while or figure out that you need a divorce during a sudden emotional upheaval, it’s important to take some time to understand what’s important to you. It might be tempting, especially if you’re facing a contested divorce or other emotional situation, to try to ask for everything in a divorce.
But in most cases, it’s not realistic to expect that you will get everything and your spouse will get nothing. Before consulting an attorney—and again, once you have engaged a lawyer—draft a list of your priorities and wishes in the following areas:
Finances—Focus on the money you believe you need to maintain your life and support your children.
Division of assets and property—This may include your home, investment properties, furniture and collectibles, bank accounts, retirement savings, and investments.
Child custody and parenting—For divorcing parents, this is usually the most important priority, and involves determining where the children will live, how much time they will spend with each parent, and what one parent expects of the other during visitation.
When drafting this list consider what you must have, and what you may be willing to give up during the inevitable compromise portion of your divorce proceedings.
ExperTip: Divorce is a major event that will affect your life for years to come—choose your legal representation accordingly. Many attorneys say they handle divorces but they aren’t well-versed in family law. They might also handle personal injury and minor criminal law cases, for example. It is in your best interest to choose a lawyer who works exclusively with family law cases, especially if you have a complex divorce or one that involves child custody.
Understand what the attorney’s role is in your divorce.
Not every divorce lawyer is the same, and that’s a good thing. Every person or couple needs a different level of service when they file for divorce, so it’s important to understand what role your attorney is prepared to play.
You might simply want a professional to record your wishes in the right format and handle all the details such as filing and serving paperwork. This can be common in collaborative divorces where there are few or no disagreements to hash out. In other situations, you might want your lawyer to take a much more active role in the divorce, negotiating on your behalf with your spouse’s lawyer regarding the terms of the divorce.
Whatever role your attorney takes, know that you have one as well. You need to be available to answer questions, provide documents and background information, and make decisions when your lawyer lays out appropriate options for consideration.
Ask these 10 questions in your initial consultation with a lawyer.
When you’re facing the emotional turmoil that often comes with the end of a marriage, it can be tempting to try to act quickly to get through the process. But hiring the first attorney you speak to may not yield the best results. Take time to research your options, take advantage of a free initial consultation if the attorney offers one (and if not, ask about the initial consultation fee—it is probably a good investment if the attorney seems like a fit from your research), and ask these critical questions:
- What percentage of your cases are divorce cases, and how many divorce cases have you handled in the past three years?
- What areas of divorce do you specialize in? (Ask for details about any specific areas that are vital to your situation.)
- Do you have any special certifications or affiliations in the areas of divorce law or family law? (For example, in California, the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization grants the Certified Family Law Specialist designation to attorneys who demonstrate proficiency and pass a specialized exam in family law.)
- What is your current caseload?
- Who will be my main point of contact during my case—an attorney, or a paralegal or support staff?
- What is your strategy for my case and how long do you anticipate it will take?
- Do you think you will need to bring in additional consultants or witnesses (psychologists, accountants, appraisers, etc.)?
- What is your fee structure, how much do you charge per hour, and what is your retainer fee?
- Are you familiar with my spouse’s attorney?
- What are your feelings about me communicating directly with my spouse?
During a consultation, the attorney also will ask questions to find out a bit about your case so they know if it fits with their practice. They might also offer some brief recommendations, such as the type of divorce you might want to file and how they can assist with that.
Fully understand the attorney’s cost and how you will pay.
Divorce lawyers might charge for their services in a few ways. In some cases, they charge a flat fee. This is typically when the divorce is collaborative or uncontested and the attorney is simply drawing up and filing paperwork. How much you pay generally depends on how many forms you need prepared, so you might pay more for a divorce with a custody agreement than you would for a simple divorce, for example.
In other cases, the attorney may charge hourly. Typically, you’ll need to pay a retainer ahead of time to secure the lawyer’s services. When the retainer is used up, you are billed for the hourly rate going forward. In some situations, you might pay a retainer periodically as funds are used.
These questions will help you get a better understanding of how much you will be expected to pay and when:
- Do you charge a flat fee or a retainer plus hourly fee?
- What retainer fee will I be obligated to pay to up front?
- What happens when the retainer is exhausted?
- Will I be liable for fees if you have to engage additional consultants or witnesses?
- Will you provide me with itemized bills?
- If my case goes to court will I have to pay additional fees?
- Will you petition the court to have my spouse pay my legal fees?
- What do you think will be the total cost of my divorce?
Don’t be tempted to go with the most aggressive lawyer, even if you think your spouse will.
You might want a lawyer that will fight aggressively for you during the divorce, but an aggressive attorney doesn’t always win. And they might not be the best fit for you, depending on your goals for the divorce, and your own personality.
It’s potentially more important to hire a divorce lawyer who listens to you and works not just to win a case but to do so in a way that’s in the best interest of you and your children, if you are a parent. Sometimes, what’s in your best interest isn’t to stick it to the other person but to find a compromise that works for your family.
Instead of trying to find the most aggressive divorce lawyer, look for one that supports your peace of mind because they are compassionate, experienced, and willing to work hard to help you get what you need out of your divorce.
ExperTip: Be as honest as possible with your divorce attorney about issues involving income, debt, assets, child custody, and other matters relevant to your divorce. If you don’t disclose information and it comes up later during the case, it might not be to your favor. If you let your attorney know as much as possible early on, they may be able to mitigate certain issues during divorce negotiations.
Getting divorced doesn’t have to involve a courtroom, even if you and your spouse can’t come to an agreement on something on your own. You might consider divorce mediation, which is a process during which a third-party mediator helps you talk and negotiate through issues related to your divorce without going to court.
Mediation can be less expensive than traditional divorce as it reduces attorney costs and court fees. But it’s still a serious process, and you may want to consult a lawyer before you enter into mediation. An experienced divorce lawyer can help you understand what your rights are, what you might be likely to win in court, and whether mediation is a good decision in your case.
Armed with the legal advice of your attorney, even if you do enter into mediation, you may be able to better negotiate for yourself. And if the mediation doesn’t go as planned and you can’t come to an agreement, your lawyer will already be apprised of the facts of the case and can move even more quickly to assist you.
Don’t stick with a bad attorney just because your case is pending—change lawyers if you have too.
While you want to keep your attorney if he or she is doing a great job, you are under no obligation to keep a lawyer who is not doing a good job or paying attention to your wishes during a divorce case.
Many people stick with a lawyer because they think it’s too late to change. That’s typically not true. An experienced divorce attorney can come to a case late and still make a big difference in the outcome.
Others stay with a lawyer because they feel like they’ve already made an investment in this professional. But keeping a lackluster lawyer only serves to waste money that you could be spending on a better attorney.
If you’re not sure how to go about firing your lawyer and bringing a new one into the case, start by reaching out to a potential new attorney and asking for a consult. Chances are, your new attorney can help you with that matter too.
Ready to speak to a lawyer? Here’s our list of the best divorce attorneys near you.